Friday, May 1, 2009
Volume 16, Number 5
Work-in-Progress, March 16, 2009
Chronicle of March 2009
Illustration / Ethel
Harriet March Page
Patti Noel Deuter
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Michael Daugherty is the avant-garde Liberace of contemporary classical music: gaudy, not afraid to buy into popular culture, with a certain emotive elegance behind the eccentricity. And for his ground-breaking 1997 opera Jackie O, given in evidently only its third staging (after previous productions in Texas and Italy) by College of Marin in a run from February 28 through March 15, he shows himself at the height of his cultivated-vernacular game.
The year is 1968. What else can one have but an opening faux-pop number using this number? Daugherty does just this, preceeding it with an evocative solo-cello arioso that becomes Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis's weaving leitmotiv through the show. In a stunning production, with stage and musical direction by James Dunn and Paul Smith, the company of players takes us initially on a wild ride in Andy Warhol's Factory, peopled by the likes of Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor.
The closest that this libretto, by Wayne Koestenbaum, comes to traditional story-telling is the entrance of Jackie (soon to be "O"), followed close upon the heels by that of the decidedly unphilosophic shipping magnate Ari[stotle Sokrates] Onasis and diva extraordinaire Maria Calas. Onasis's extraordinarily smarmy tango I Am Curious Yellow (among the better known numbers of the work) sets the stage for a boy-dumps-opera-singer-for-ex-president's-wife scenario.
Among the curiously delightful musical effects, a crazy muted trumpet as a persisent telephonic ritournello (telephonello?), which suggests a possible re-uniting of Ari and Maria in Act II, yet ultimately calls the former offstage permanently upon the news of the death of his son, in a strangely empty recitative.
There is space throughout the work -- a spare chamber-ensemble quality expertly handled by the fine musical ensemble (including many players familiar over the years from appearances at The Mountain Play and other College of Marin evens). Daugherty shines in his pseudo-pop numbers and then takes the ear on a loop into art music realms, such that the overall effect is far from a Broadway musical, despite certain commonalities.
What sets the music and the drama apart are the risks: the willingness to go places that are simply not possible in the parlance of the popular. A traditional music drama tends not degenerate into delusional dream. A slam-bang ending is not denied in the ever-ascending stratospheric return of the plangeant violoncello. The effect is of a two-movement Unfinished Symphony of fast and slow, ending in a Greek-Mediterranean requiem.
The first-rate cast includes a poignant Natasha Leland (Jackie), stunning Valentina Osinski (Callas), surprisingly seductive Randall Nazarian (Onasis), commanding Robbie Cowen (Warhol), frenetically tapdancing Matt Bechelli (Paparazzo), ghostly-elegant Andrew Truett (John Kennedy), and beautiful-toned Susan Zelinsky and Linda Gaudiani (Kelly and Taylor).
The chorus was populated by beautiful people, too -- from the hippie chicks of the first act to the entourage of golden boys in the second, with striking sets and costumes by Ronald E. Krempetz and Patricia Polen, and welcome choreography from Sandra Tanner.
"Astound me!" said Sergei Diaghilev to Jean Cocteau, and that's we all want, right?
So it was nice to hear and see Michael Morgan and the Oakland East Bay Symphony, on March 20 at the Paramount Theatre, in a vibrant performance of that 19th-century operatic potboiler, Giuseppe Verdi's Otello (1887, Act I)
With a gigantic sheet-metal "thunder sheet" suspended from the stage ceiling, there was little doubt that the opening would deliver its requisite bang, and deliver it did, with peals of resonant brass, sonorous strings, wild woodwinds, and pounding percussion. Soprano Talise Trevigne (Desdemona), tenor Richard Crawley (Otello), and baritone Scott Bearden (Iago) were standouts -- the former two in their rapturous closing duet, and the latter in the hilarious, inventive, menacing drinking song which propels much of the interior section. Tenors Al Glueckert (Cassio) and Trey Costerisan (Rodrigo), and baritone Zachary Gorin (Montano) provided able support throughout, as did the impressive chorus, prepared by Lynne Morrow.
No costumes, sets, not even supertitles... yet the music drama came across in this concert version that brought to life to an important Verdi work that is not done often enough.. a music, after years of silence, which finds the composer in transition between his early "number" operas and the Wagner-tinged late output.
If there was something defiant about the lack of operatic trappings, so there was also about any pretentions of program unity, with a first half that, if it bespoke of any theme, offered a somnambulent contrast to the animation of the second.
The concert opened with an unexpected performance of F.J. Haydn's Symphony No. 49 ("La Passion") (1768) in a dispassionate account that emphasized the interstices between "period practices" and the "great tradition." Morgan conducted from the harpsichord, a continuo instrument not always specified in often-untrustworthy editions of mid-period Haydn scores. Like Dragnet's Joe Friday, this reading seemed to emphasize "the facts, ma'am," with much left to the imagination.
For the record, the movement listings, incorrectly inverted in the program booklet, are
II. Allegro di molto
III. Menuet e Trio
Imagination was also wandering out there somewhere in Sala: Symphonic Elegy for Orchestra (2007), by Peteris Vasks. In contradistinction to John Donne, the Estonian composer finds that "Every single person is actually an island and this island is a source of sadness as well as of energy, power, and also of dramatics." Vasks makes his contribution to the quixotic 20th-century legacy of somber one-movement protracted meditations. If there is a hint of post-minimalism here, it is of the Eastern-European spiritualist stripe, rather than the high-energy American original. High lonely tremoli, a languid English horn solo -- you know the drill. A lovely brass chorale leads up to some profoundly cyclical musici interupti, and it all spins down again. Just the thank, you, ma'am, with a little thanks to Dmitri Shostakovich in the charmingly cryptic ending. Certainly a whimper, rather than a wham-bam, but this made the contrast with Verdian post-intermission that more astounding.
Opening Nights Festival. Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY. "[A] five-and-a-half-hour celebration of what was once called downtown music, although it long ago moved uptown to places like Tully, and from the avant-garde into the mainstream. As a prelude, the idiosyncratic string quartet Ethel gave the premiere of Phil Kline’s Space as a free concert in the hall’s large new public area. The quartet’s players were deployed individually to the north, south, east and west of the restaurant and waiting area, and a loudspeaker in each corner carried the amplified, electronically processed sound of one musician. (The sound designer, Jody Elff, was given equal billing with Mr. Kline.) Mr. Kline’s hypnotically attractive 45-minute work begins with the quartet playing a tremolando figure that gradually shifts to new harmonies and textures before moving through the lexicon of string ensemble effects. Along the way it explores sustained tones and lightly dissonant harmonies, with a bagpipelike timbre; pizzicato figures supporting soaring, lyrical viola and cello lines; and ornate violin solos bathed in tape delay that created an almost fugal illusion. The main concert, New York, New Music, New Hall, inside the renovated hall, was presented as a look at three generations of new-music ensembles and the composers they are drawn to, beginning with the youngest, Alarm Will Sound, and moving backward through the Bang on a Can All-Stars to the venerable Steve Reich and Musicians. But the multigeneration idea didn’t mean much. There is scarcely any stylistic difference between the music Alarm Will Sound and the Bang on a Can group play, and both ensembles perform Mr. Reich’s work. Alarm Will Sound, conducted by Alan Pierson, began its set with Derek Bermel’s Three Rivers (2001). The title, Mr. Bermel wrote, refers to his melding of classical, jazz and pop influences in the score. But jazz, which has tendrils in the other two styles, dominated, and many of its flavors, from swing to avant-garde, were represented. Cartoonish touches turned up as well: a police whistle followed quickly by a xylophone figure fleetingly evoked Spike Jones. Caleb Burhans’s oh ye of little faith ... (do you know where your children are?), commissioned for this concert, covers vast stylistic ground in only 10 minutes, beginning with a softly angular, almost music-box-like celesta and vibraphone ostinato and building toward a sunburst crescendo based on crunching electric-guitar chords. Much of the piece is elegiac: a melancholy string figure, set against the pitched percussion ostinato, is akin in spirit to Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. But that theme takes on a more robust character when the strings surrender it to the woodwinds and brasses, and it’s a short leap from there to the guitar-driven denouement. Between the Bermel and the Burhans, Oscar Bianchi’s Mezzogiorno (2005) explored the contrast between raucous pop currents and hazy introspection effectively, if less memorably. Bang on a Can started in the mid-1980's as an alliance of the composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang, and evolved into an ensemble that mostly plays music by others. But for the Tully concert, the group returned to its roots. The players revived Ms. Wolfe’s Lick (1994), in which short bursts grow into a rhythmically complex mechanism, and offered the New York premiere of Mr. Lang’s chromatic, style-hopping Sunray (2006) and the world premiere of Mr. Gordon’s luminous, texturally shimmering For Madeleine (2009). The Bang on a Can players also poached repertory that should have been in Alarm Will Sound’s territory if the multigeneration concept meant anything: Glenn Kotche, the drummer for the rock band Wilco, joined the ensemble to perform his own bright-edged, vigorously syncopated Mobile (2007). The concert ended with Mr. Reich and his group giving a supple account of Music for 18 Musicians (1976), a pivotal work in Mr. Reich’s canon and a score that helps define the boundary between Minimalism and post-Minimalism. Its Minimalist DNA -- the insistent ostinato that runs through the hourlong score, and note-by-note evolution of the superimposed themes -- grabs the attention. But the density and variety of those themes are the work’s real meat, and they were a revolution for Mr. Reich. With his later works in mind, a listener can now hear the roots of other developments here too. A repeating, chordal crescendo, for example, turns up in The Desert Music (1984), and a two-note descending slide found its way into Different Trains (1988).
Clash Tango: The Orchestra of St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble. Morgan Library & Museum. "[T]he clashes in the essentially tonal, melodic music were few and actual tangos even fewer. To the extent that tangos were heard, Astor Piazzolla was somehow involved, if not as a composer then as an inspiration. Unalloyed Piazzolla -- the spirited, flute- and clarinet-dominated Muerte del Angel -- closed the concert. And the first half included Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round (1996), a memorial to Piazzolla, who died in 1992. . . . In another work, Lullaby and Doina (2001), Mr. Golijov sublimated his Latin roots to his Jewish ones, quoting a Yiddish melody and pairing it with a klezmer-tinged dance, scored to allow the theme to pass among the clarinet, the cello and the flute, all played with a rich, singing tone. In the Piazzolla and Golijov pieces popular and classical elements are tightly intertwined. Other works lean more decisively in one direction or the other. Clovis Pereira’s Três Peças Nordestinas (1971, heard in a 1993 quartet arrangement) sounds as if it were meant to be played in an elegant tearoom. . . . Both the Pereira and Paquito D’Rivera’s rhythmically vital Wapango (a variation on the Mexican huapango dance form), also for quartet, use pizzicato figures to evoke the sound of the guitar. And Guido López-Gavilán’s Mi Menor Conga, for string quintet, turns the string players into part-time percussionists and singers: at several points the musicians tap out conga rhythms on their instruments, and toward the end they vocalize. At the more formal end of the spectrum Gabriela Lena Frank makes modest but effective use of extended flute techniques (including multiphonics and an evocation of a distantly howling wind) to suggest an imagined pre-Incan antiquity in her Cuatro Bosquejos Pre-Incaicos (2006), for flute and cello. And the program’s oldest work, Villa-Lobos’s Piano Trio No. 1 (1911), pays homage to European models so completely that if the score embodies any specifically Brazilian themes, rhythms or textures, as so many of Villa-Lobos’s later works do, they are thoroughly submerged" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 3/6/09].
Kurt Weill’s operetta The Firebrand of Florence. Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY. "[The work] was doomed by an inadequate cast and a lackluster staging when it opened on Broadway in March 1945. It closed a month later and (except for a few songs) was neglected until a decade or so ago. A lively semistaged performance . . . revealed both the intricacies of Weill’s vibrant score and the libretto’s comedic elements, aptly framed by Roger Rees’s narration and direction. Ted Sperling conducted the Collegiate Chorale, the New York City Opera Orchestra and stars from the opera and theater worlds in a taut, snappily paced rendition of Firebrand, one of six musicals Weill composed for Broadway. The lyrical score shifts rapidly between satirical musical-theater-style excerpts and more serious, quasi-operatic numbers. The operetta, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, is based on Edwin Justus Mayer’s 1924 play about the 16th-century Florentine sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (also the subject of an opera by Berlioz). Benvenuto escapes being hanged after the Duke of Florence frees him so he can finish a previously commissioned sculpture. Benvenuto then energetically woos Angela (his favorite model, whom the Duke also has a crush on) while the Duchess of Florence chases the wily sculptor. . .
There was plenty of amusing onstage chemistry. Victoria Clark portrayed the man-eating Duchess with flair and apt comic timing. (The role was first sung by Lotte Lenya, Weill’s wife, who was panned in the original production.) The baritone Nathan Gunn was charismatic as the womanizing Benvenuto, swaggering around the even sleazier Duke, given a dynamic performance by Terrence Mann. The soprano Anna Christy was sweetly coy as Angela. The excellent cast also included David Pittu in roles including the villainous Count Maffio; Krysty Swann as Emilia (Benvenuto’s maid); and Patrick Goss as the treacherous Ottaviano de’ Medici" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 3/13/09].
Composer Portraits: Arlene Sierra. International Contemporary Ensemble performs five of the composer's works, conducted by Jace Ogren. Miller Theater, New York, NY. "Arlene Sierra has been inspired by an unusually wide range of sources, including bees, poetry and Chinese and Roman military tactics. . . . Sierra uses a colorful palette in compositions like Neruda Settings, for 10 players and soprano . . . . In one [movement], Ode to the Lizard, darting, coloristic fragments from a flute, a celeste, a harp and a violin are woven around the text. The music ebbed and flowed in intensity, reaching a peak at 'To/a fly/you are the dart/of an annihilating dragon.' . . . The other three poems in Ms. Sierra’s set are Ode to the Artichoke, Ode to the Plate, and Ode to the Table. Susan Narucki sang them (in Spanish) with expressive conviction. . . . [S]tudying East Asian history at Oberlin College had provided fodder for compositions like Cicada Shell for septet. Militaristic and rhythmically driven in Marziale (the first section) and more subdued in the ensuing Misterioso, espressivo, the work was inspired by ancient Chinese battle tactics. Military themes also figure prominently in Surrounded Ground, whose three movements -- Preamble, Feigned Retreat, and Egress -- were composed as a companion to Aaron Copland’s 1933 Sextet. The marchlike rhythms of the first section are followed by a vivacious dialogue between instruments and an almost jazzy finale. The program also included the world premiere of Colmena (Spanish for beehive), whose multilayered textures and colorful effects mimic those of its namesake insect. The concert concluded with the kaleidoscopic Ballistae. Inspired by the ballista, an ancient artillery machine, the work is built on percussion riffs; uneasy, fluttering fragments; and repeated motifs, ending with a bang" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 3/16/09]